08/25/2010, Vavva'u, Tonga
I've always revered schoolteachers, especially in compromised situations where they are challenged to meet the many needs of the kids, and where "the needs of the kids" is a concept that is redefined on a regular basis, with completely different meanings in different parts of the world.
In Kenya, where I spent a scant 3 weeks in 2001, the school fees are often more than a family can bear, especially if the family consists of a mother, no father, and a lot of kids. Sometimes the oldest boy must drop out of school to help his mother and family earn a living. I met "kids" who were 17, in Grade 5, and thrilled about it. Thrilled that now there was a chance for them to go back and get the education they missed, and have a chance at a better life. Interestingly, when asked, most of the kids said they wanted to be teachers.
Today we visited an elementary school in a small village on the island of Nuapapu. There were 26 kids and two teachers -- Anne, who taught the younger kids, grades 1-3, and David, who had the older ones up to grade 6. And although the children had worn and sometimes dirty clothing, no doubt passed from child to child until they were literally no longer wearable, and though the school was simple, it was a University compared to some of the schools I saw in Kenya. They had chalkboards and chalk, posters on the walls, art hanging from the ceilings, stacks of paper and boxes of pens and pencils. Still, many families don't have the money to send their kids to school, and the schools are definitely lacking in many areas. David told us that for awhile, the teachers agreed to take half their salaries to save the school some money.
But the kids were happy, smiling and laughing, and surrounded us with love and affection, showing off their reading skills with an eagerness that was so admirable, and singing at the absolute top of their little lungs -- which don't seem so little when all 26 of them have permission to resist any temptation to hold back.
Gloria brought a huge map of the world, and we each showed them where we came from, tracing our routes to show them how we got to Tonga, and where we were going next. It didn't take long for half the class to be up from their polite cross-legged positions on the floor and crowding around the map, looking for country flags and the countries they match, locating their own small Kingdom in the middle of the South Pacific, and trying to pronounce some of the other places their little fingers landed on.
Trish brought a hula hoop, which was loads of laughs for all of us as the kids got up, one by one, boys and girls, to give it a whirl. She and Steve also brought 2 of my my favorite Dr. Seuss books -- "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" and "Green Eggs and Ham." One of my favorite moments in the morning was seeing blond, petite Trish, surrounded by gorgeous dark-skinned Tongan children, pointing word-by-word to "Green Eggs and Ham" as they dutifully read along, in those strong voices. "I-do-not-like-green-eggs-and-ham, I-do-not-like-them, Sam-I-Am." My second most favorite part of the morning was getting ready to leave, and, looking about the classroom to see if we had everything, seeing Steve, all 6-foot-1 of him, seated on the ground amidst the kids like he was one of them, talking sports with the boys, and looking up at us with an innocent look of "What, do we have to go?"
When they stood up to introduce themselves, most of them, just like the many Kenyan kids I met a decade ago, said "I want to be a teacha in the fewcha." A few of boys said, with great bravado and thumping of chests, that they wanted to be policemen, or soldiers. Two boys wanted to be pilots, so of course, that's what Allan and I talked about for awhile.
Gloria had the idea of taking their pictures, one at a time, and printing them up on our boats to return to the school for each kid. David loved that idea, saying that most families didn't have pictures of their kids. We left David with a pile of goodies -- t-shirts, pens, pencils, airplane-shaped paper clips (!), the hula hoop and map, and other "bits and bots" as Steve says, and took our leave, the younger ones clinging to our skirts and pant legs, the older ones somberly shaking our hands.
Gloria and I spent a few hours printing the photos on Fly Aweigh's compact but capable HP printer, thanks to Trish and Steve's donation of good-quality photo paper. After lunch we returned to the school and dropped off the photos, as well as a bit of a cash donation for whatever "needs" there might be, and we know there are many, despite the relative upgrade from my Kenyan experience.
The kids are well-cared for, the school has a delightful ocean view (enhances learning, I think) and 2 dedicated teachers. We loved every minute of hanging out with these energetic, creative and interested kids, and I hope they all realize their dreams of being teachers and policemen and pilots and soldiers.
08/22/2010, Vava'u, Tonga
We are back in Neiafu for a short few hours to dump trash, buy a some produce, deal with a few necessary items via the trusty Internet, and look for a part for our genoa sail. Then, back out there -- this time bound for #15, where tomorrow we hope to join friends on a visit to one of the village schools, at the invitation of the teacher.
The rhythm of things around here seems to be like a bellows, in and out go the yachts; off for a few days or a week, then back to restock and recharge. For some, the regular infusion of Internet, a bit of civilization, and a nice dinner provides balance to the beautiful, more rural anchorages. Others want longer times in the islands and come back only when desperate. Yet others love the activity in town, bonding with locals and ex pats, finding their favorite spots to hang out. The beauty of Tonga is the freedom to fashion your time as you wish, since, as I've mentioned, nothing is more than a few hours sail away. This allows us to do things like get up early, motor in the brilliant, calm Tongan morning to Neiafu, pick up a mooring ball, take a short dinghy ride to the dock in front of the Aquarium, empty our trash in their bins ($1 per bag) and order coffee and breakfast by 9am. By dinner time we'll be nestled in anchorage #15 watching the sun go down. It's really quite easy.
So, what have we been up to out there? Crawling around on a reef at low tide in the dark, searching for lobster (none found) and discovering a delightful world of critters in the tide pools with our flashlights ( I did spot a teeny-tiny itty bitty little lobster baby); driftting back in a 6-kayak flotilla in the dark with Michael, Gloria, Gordon and Sherry, hanging onto each other's little boats and gazing at the sky while an active lightening show delights us in the distance; getting back to our boats in the nick of time as the storms moves over the anchorage and launches a deluge; waking up to crystal-clear skies and calm winds, then motoring over to #40, a tiny little island with a beautiful beach and some lovely snorkeling; moving on the next day to #7 where we had signed up for a Tongan Feast; swimming underwater to a hidden cave with it's own weather system; more snorkeling; church in a little village with loud singing and an even louder Pastor, bellowing at us in angry Tongan for some sin or another we had, or would soon enough, commit; and movie night on Serenity with caramel corn and watermelon.
The Tongan Feast was interesting, and deserves more than mere mention. Hosted by a local family in the village, it was attended by about 30 "palangi" (that's us) and served at a long, narrow table. The evening was a wet affair with rain drenching incoming dinner guests as they beached their dinghies and ran for shelter. It was BYOBAC (Bring Your Own Bottle And Cup) so the nearby table was piled with cans of local beer, bottles of wine, and jugs of juice amid wet hats and rain coats. After a rather unceremonious few servings of kava, (which many say tastes like dirty dishwater, but which I have grown accustomed to over my years of traveling to Fiji) (but I won't go so far as to say I actually like it) we settled at the lavishly-laid table for a truly delicious meal.
Although we were seated in chairs and sitting at a table, whereas traditionally meals would be served on the floor and diners would sit cross-legged around the meal, it was otherwise quite traditionally prepared and served. The table was first laid with dense green leaves, which often serve as plates and platters, with beautiful, fragrant flowers strewn about. Shells served as bowls for ota ika, the Tongan version of the classic seaside dish known as poisson cru or ceviche in other cultures -- with raw fish, lime, coconut milk and minced cucumbers and peppers. Larger shells held a sweet, subtle crab salad. Little square bundles of banana leaf contained beef and coconut, cooked over an open fire, and had a warm, smoky taste. Steamed and seasoned clams were served in little bundles, knotted at the top -- tender and spicy. Large pillars of cooking papaya that looked like fat orange candles had a coconut mixture in the hollowed-out centers. There was a dish that looked like chunks of chicken but was actually blobs of flour, sugar and coconut milk, adn went quite well with everything else on the plate. Tender bamboo halves were used as little boats holding fresh fruit. And finally, the ever-present spit-roasted pig, a little guy with all his parts, nose to tail, was proudly presented center-stage.
After the meal there was a rather awkward display of Tongan dance, a casual and sadly un-enthusiastic performance by the host's daughters and nieces. Their traditional costumes were delightful, and the girls were lovely, but we all had the feeling they would rather have been anywhere than where they were, shyly dancing (mostly hand movements) to recorded music weakly broadcast from the kitchen behind them, and being coached and goaded by their father/uncle and mother/aunt with hoots and clapping, interjected with occasional critique whispered loudly in their ears ("Smile! Smile!") The general intent is to raise money for the girls to pay their school fees -- a worthy cause -- and one we all generously contributed to, but it was a bit contrived, and I felt empathy for the girls in their discomfort in front of a rather apathetic group of tired palangi. But overall, the evening was delightful.
Our dive into the cave was also worth a bit of elaboration. Called Mariners Cave, it's a small underwater hole or tunnel in a big, sheer wall that leads to an interior cave. It's too deep to anchor outside or near the cave, so the recommended method is to have someone stay on the boat while others make the quick swim. We piled the 6 of us onto Fly Aweigh with gear and snacks and headed for the lat/long position listed in our guidebook. It took awhile to find the underwater tunnel, but soon enough we had 3 people deployed in the water and bravely swimming off to check it out. It wasn't as easy as we expected, but Allan finally jumped in and found the hole, which led to a cavern about the size of a large living room with a high stalagmite ceiling. Every time a wave would push into the cavern it would pressurize the space and cause a momentary cloud of condensation, fogging up and unfogging every 15 or 20 seconds, accompanied by pressure changes that made our ears pop.
Another fun, memorable experience, one of so, so many. And in a few hours we'll go out and have some more unpredicted experiences to pile in that book of Amazing Things, so rich and profuse that still, I lack the the superlatives necessary to adequately describe them.
08/17/2010, Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga
And now the story of Anna, the capsized 57' catamaran.
It started the night we had a stormy, tumultuous Saturday night in Niue a few weeks ago. That same night, some hours earlier and a few hundred miles west, the same weather moved quickly toward Anna, undersail east of Tonga. Her crew was unable to respond in time and the rapidly escalating winds capsized the lightweight racing catamaran in minutes. The owner was thrown from the boat as it flipped, and was able to swim back and climb back aboard. His crewmate was trapped inside one of the hulls, but safe and mostly dry. They spent 18 hours awaiting rescue by a nearby supply ship, and 2 days later we met them in Niue, in good shape with only a few bumps and bruises, and in some measure of shock over the whole thing.
We spent 24 hours trying to avoid the capsized hulk on our way to Tonga, unsure of her actual position as she drifted, and here she is near the end of her story, upside-down on a reef, a few miles southeast of Neiafu. Apparently she travelled through a deep channel through an outer reef and finally ended up on a tiny 50-foot island. She had been seen first by our friends Melva and Steve on s/v Mary Powell, who spied her while they were looking for whales. As of now, she has now been claimed by a local salvage company who is working with the owner and the insurance company.
When we saw her on the reef, it looked as though the battered catamaran had already been somewhat plundered, with unusable detritus strewn about the tiny, sandy island. Her cabin looked like it had sheared off but her hulls looked pretty good. Knowing that her occupants are alive and safe, not to mention well-insured, made our drive-by rubbernecking seem okay.
She was towed into the harbor here in Neiafu yesterday and is resting, still upside-down, on the far side across from town.
And that's the story, as much or as little as we know of it, of Catamaran Anna.
08/16/2010, Vava'u, Tonga
"I'm all out of superlatives!" exclaimed Steve from Curious in his lilting English accent, after we emerged from our incredible swim yesterday with Humpback whales. After writing numerous blogs about swimming with dolphins, diving with snakes, feeding sting rays, diving with manta rays, hearing the whales calling underwater, and everything else that we've all been so amazingly blessed to experience in the last year, he said he simply didn't know how he was going to write about this. And that was exactly what I was thinking as I floated motionless in the water, my arms limp at my sides, face to face and 20 feet from a sleeping Humpback whale, while her 1-week old calf swam energetically all around her.
Our day was chaperoned by Beluga Dive, one of the companies here in Neiafu licensed to conduct snorkeling trips with the whales. There is a lot of controversy over this issue, and much debate on the morning cruiser's net about what's legal, and what's right. As a group (s/v's Curious, Paikea Mist, Serenity, and Fly Aweigh) we had serious discussions before we booked our trip, and I almost didn't go. But in the end, we chose one of the companies with a good reputation and now, after this once-in-a-lifetime experience, none of us bear any regrets. We know that the mother could take her calf and be gone in seconds, and we know she could have exhibited behavior that made it clear she was not going to welcome us into the family. But she and her calf were spectacularly hospitable and we are better humans for it.
She sleeps with one eye open, her pectoral fins resting at her sides, occasionally moving slowly through the water to surface for a breath, and always aware of her surroundings. She knew we were there, she knew where the calf was at all times, and she was as patient and mellow as any new mother I've ever met. We postulated she was simply exhausted, but also, I think she knew we were not a threat. We didn't have harpoons, we moved slowly and cautiously, never putting ourselves between her and her baby, and not making any overt moves towards them. A few times when the curious calf swam near us, she gently moved, positioning herself between us and her. (Our best guess is that the calf was a she.) But most of the time mom was just fine with the gawking humans. Once, when the calf was resting on her nose -- which she did a lot -- the mother nudged her off and gave her a gentle shove towards us. We had heard that sometimes mothers will encourage their young to interact with humans, but typically not until after they have reached 3 months, so we were surprised at this gesture.
We were allowed to go in the water and swim gently toward them to a certain distance, 4 swimmers at a time. We each had 3 or more opportunities with these intelligent giants, and each time was more amazing than the one before. By the time I got out of the water after the third swim, dried off, and climbed to the top deck of the boat, I was overcome with emotion. I felt more peaceful than I've ever felt, and more grateful than I can convey. With the warm sun on my back and a gentle breeze on my face I surveyed the scene, 360 degrees around me. Swimmers in the water, their little snorkels poking out -- a small clump of fragile humans in awe and wonder -- the whales occasionally surfacing to exhale, the baby swimming happily, sometimes getting bursts of energy, spy-hopping and breaching, all 12 feet and 2 tons of her brand-new gangly baby self making quite a show. The scenery all around me was rich greens and gemstone blues, with distant sailboats enjoying the perfect day, their white sails a gentle slant; the sky clear blue with white puffy clouds. Tears of joy and a feeling of ultimate happiness filled me ... you see, it's almost impossible to write about. It was simply the best of everything. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Allan, who had 4 swims with the whales and got lots of pictures -- even a few of the calf suckling, which was not easy considering she's huge, and Allan had to drop a fair bit under the surface to get the shot from below.
After they finally moved off enough to let us know they'd had enough, the group (we totaled 14 today) and the Captain all agreed to head off to the reef on the southeast side of the Vava'u group, where rumor had it the capsized 57-foot catamaran had finally made landfall. (See next blurb.) As we sped off, the calf breached repeatedly, and then the mother fin-slapped the water at least 15 times, making huge splashes that we could see all the way until we were out of sight. It was as if they were bidding us farewell with the best enthusiasm they could display. And maybe mom was saying, "Thanks for babysitting!"
We are all connected on this Earth, and our rich experience yesterday now requires something from us: we'll learn more about the whales, about the cruel and illegal whaling that is still going on today around the world, and about how these gentle, ancient creatures can continue to be protected and appreciated. We were given an incredible gift, and now we all agree: we need to pay it forward.
Allan is working on a photo gallery that includes some of the amazing photos we got with my mom's Sea Life camera, as well as pictures from Gordon on Serenity, Gloria on Paikea Mist, and Trish on Curious. Also, Gloria has written a beautiful blog on our experience, and at the risk of losing my faithful readership to her incredible writing, I encourage you to check it out: www.sailblogs.com/member/paikeamist
Our first week in Tonga has flown by.
We had to get out of Neiafu for awhile because there's too much to do. It's a great place to spend money and eat good food, with something interesting going on every night. Listening to the morning radio net we can see how people become fixtures. Lectures on whales and dolphins, Tongan dance shows, local music, art shows, raffles and benefits, Mexican Buffet nights ("Best Mexican Food in Tonga!" Mike at Aquarium promises) and the smaller lures that come across on the net each morning: one of the restaurants is owned by a Kiwi, married to a Greek, and she sometimes cooks Greek specials. "We have Moussaka!" is a temptation I can barely resist; lobster is occasionally procured by one restaurant or another and gleefully announced on the net, or a catch of fresh fish. (Side note: local fisherman have discovered they can make more money gathering sea cucumbers for the Asian market than fishing, so often the local restaurants have no fish to serve.)
Although we really enjoyed town, a few days in Neiafu caused serious damage to our food and Internet budget, so we dropped the mooring on Monday and started off on an exploration of the numerous small islands in the Vava'u group, all a few hours sail from Neiafu. We started with #16, where we had 2 great nights on a mooring and went on one of the best snorkeling dives of our trip so far, rich with live coral and new critters we haven't seen before. We've taken to rushing back to Paikea Mist to consult their fish book after each dive, identifying the new sightings. Our big event of that dive was the Oriental Sweetlips, a pair of gorgeous yellow and black fish about 14" long. Now I understand the addiction to birdwatching.
We moved on to #7 where Lushka on Further was having a birthday party, and met up with some of our fellow cruisers who had remained in Neiafu or been off to other numerically ordered anchorages. We have The Moorings (worldwide sailboat charter operation, big here in Tonga) to thank for the numbers, even though all the anchorages have actual names. The Moorings puts out a great map which is available for a price, and have done away with the difficult Tongan names and instead numbered each anchorage. It makes for fun conversations: "Yeah, we had a great dive at 16 and then made it to the party at 7. We think we'll hang here a few days and then go check out the gallery at 11, maybe take in the Tongan Feast on Saturday at 8."
Sailing here is a lot like sailing in the Pacific Northwest, or off the coast of Vancouver, according to Gloria, our Canadian friend. In fact, she says sailing around these islands is making her homesick. Of course, it's a bit warmer here than in Canada, although we have been complaining as the temps drop into the low 70's and we're all wearing long pants and sweatshirts.
The wind has been blowing all night, and we even had a little unforecast rain this morning, just enough to get the salt washed off and motivate us to clean the windows. It's overcast, and the anchorage is quiet. I think everyone is taking the morning to catch up on things aboard their boats, as we are. Laundry, toilet repairs, letter-writing, blurbing, cleaning.
We're set to go on a whale watching excursion Monday, so we'll head back to Neiafu Sunday afternoon for a few days, spend some more money, then leave perhaps Wednesday for more numerical exploration.
08/09/2010, Nieafu, Vava'u, Tonga
We traded a sea full of poisonous snakes that can't bite for a sea full of jelly fish that can sting. It's stunning to see how many there are here in the bay, especially at night. Coming back from dinner the other night in the dinghy, we noticed thousands of them, swarms, schools, herds of jellyfish. Once back on our boat, we spent over an hour with a strong flashlight, mesmerized as they swam slowly by -- or squished, or whatever it is they do -- their beautiful white tentacles flowing around them as they moved along, sometimes turning upside down and revealing their see-through insides to our camera. No jumping in the water here, especially at night. Hopefully they will abate in the coming weeks, or not be as thick in other anchorages.
Our first 3 nights here have been so calm, we feel like the boat is in dry dock. Rock solid, except when a dinghy goes by and leaves mild waves in it's wake, gently splashing the hull. We all realized we haven't had a calm, quiet night since Bora Bora over a month ago. The main topic of conversation amongst our friends is how quiet it is, and how well we're sleeping.
I had a great birthday thanks to Allan and the good friends we've made along the way -- Michael and Gloria from Paikea Mist, Gordon and Sherry from Serenity, and Steve and Trish from Curious. Steve and Trish hosted a cocktail hour on their beautiful Oyster 57, followed by a delicious dinner prepared by Swiss chef Gunther at the Dancing Rooster, and topped off with a chocolate cake Gloria baked earlier in the day. I do feel overwhelmingly blessed.
Yesterday Allan and I joined Gordon and Sherry from Serenity for church, a delightful display of sights and sounds. The Tongans take church, singing, and church attire very seriously. The men and boys all had large, thick woven mats wrapped around their waists, bound in place with thick cords, or wide black belts. Some of the women also sported the heavy mats that spanned from above the waist to mid-thigh, worn over fancy long dresses. These are the kind of mats you could walk on, or sleep on, or sleep under. Others had modified versions that looked much easier to wear: intricate woven belts with long fringe, almost like a hula skirt, and some actually had woven grass skirts over their dresses. Not one woman had her hair down; all had long black pony tails or large buns held in place with dressy pins and clips. And not one shoulder was in evidence, making me feel terribly exposed. We also noted that men and women did not sit together. The children were at the front, or with their mothers, who sat on the right side of the church; the teens were all in uniform on the left side of the church, and the men sat in the middle behind the women and children. It made for an interesting sound when they sang, the men in their deep, strong voices and the women and teens harmonizing like a professional choir. It was gorgeous. We didn't understand a word of it, or of the sermon, until the pastor spelled the "H" word very slowly for the children, who burst into laughter.
And today we explored Tonga beneath the sea, and I must say it's a huge relief to see live coral again. I think I'd gotten used to seeing colorful fish against a dead gray background of dead coral, mostly due to cyclone damage, but sad nonetheless. Here, many of the reefs are protected from storm damage, and the colors are as varied as I've ever seen. Rich, red anemone, orange, lime green, yellow, pink and purple coral, huge green fan corals that looked like tropical ferns, and lots of sea life. The highlight was when we stopped breathing and hung in silence, listening to a distant humpback whale. We're hoping to hear a lot more of that in the next month.
Tomorrow we plan to stock up at the markets and head out to one of the many beautiful anchorages within a few hours' sail, to explore and soak up some quiet.